You know how it is. Feet up on the sofa watching the Tour highlights all alone, glass of wine in hand, I’m wondering what it must feel like to know – as early as the ninth stage, to Besançon – that your nearest and dearest, barring accidents or complete meltdown, is going to win the race; to know that those months, years, of effort and sacrifice were worth it – if indeed they are worth it.
It needs that person to be sitting here on the sofa with me, watching the race, a bundle of nerves as the camera hones in on the latest crash until the fallers are identified; relief as the yellow jersey is spotted safely ensconced at the head of the peloton. It requires this rubbernecking journo to lean across and see firsthand the stream of consciousness Tweeting taking place, the rule of thumbs relaying thoughts within seconds. There is a need to glean the un-Tweeted, extract the unsaid, to gauge whether the enormity of what her husband was about to achieve had struck home; how it would change their lives irreparably.
A couple more glasses of red later and it seems a fine idea to send a speculative e-mail to Cath Wiggins suggesting we meet up and watch the race together; explaining how we had met on two previous occasions and how, to my eternal shame, I had practically trampled over her to reach Brad; saying how I couldn’t even recall what she looked like. In the cold – and sober – light of the morning, the wording of that e-mail looked quite preposterous. The wait for a suitably strong riposte began but it did not last long.
“Oh, don’t worry,” she wrote. “Everybody does that,” referring to my lack of courtesy and common decency. A magnanimous response to say the least. Yet she agreed to the idea, so we planned a day of TV watching in France following the rest day in Pau. It didn’t work out, for one reason or another, so we rescheduled for the Tour of Britain, arranging a rendezvous on top of Quernmore, the day’s final climb on the stage into Blackpool.
As luck would have it, the worst weather the north west of England could muster slammed down on the hilltop that morning; gusting winds bringing torrential downpours that tumbled down the fields and onto the road, huge pools of standing water forming at the foot of the climb. I sent a text questioning whether Cath was really riding the 50 miles from home to Quernmore or doing the sensible thing and driving. The reply was fast and emphatic: “I am on my way. I am northern!”
We found a cold, shivering Cath beneath a tree with dad Dave Cochran in tow, chaperone for the day. Having watched Brad and his boys shoot past, successfully lining up that day’s sprint for Mark Cavendish, we head to the nearest pub for tea and coffee. Pulling out one of our Wiggo mugs from my bag, I’m already making apologies, thinking it may be a bit odd drinking tea from a vessel with a cartoon version of your husband adorning the outside. But she loves it, with one reservation: “His hair’s the wrong colour. It’s not ginger…”
Fair point. The hint of a sardonic smile on the cartoon Brad’s lips seems to echo his wife’s sentiment. We chat about the previous week’s GQ awards, where Wiggins received a lifetime achievement award – at the tender age of 32 – as Cath awaits the arrival of a steaming pot of tea on which to warm her dysfunctional digits. Milk in first? No, no. That will never do.
Photographer Geoff, being a man with an eye for style, says the lean and mean Wiggins looked mighty fine in his double breasted houndstooth check suit. “He scrubs up nice,” Cath agrees. “It was a bit strange [to receive a lifetime achievement award], him being 32. It was nice, though, getting something like that.”
It promises to be a busy off season for the pair of them, with dinners and awards coming thick and fast. Demand for the Tour winner will be huge. For Wiggins – an essentially shy man who has occasional amusing outbursts of exuberance – it could be as testing a time as any race in the past year. I put it to Cath that, due to the phenomenal rise in cycling’s popularity in Britain, hers and Brad’s generation will be the last in this country to have primarily been introduced to this sport through their families. We were the generations who joined the local club as teenagers and were wearing strange pre-Lycra sagging garments at just the age when self image is all important; condemned to ridicule when school-mates caught sight of us on the Sunday club run.
“I certainly used to get stick at school. Cycling used to be all the geeks, didn’t it?” she confirms. Dad Dave, facilities manager for British Cycling, chips in: “You wouldn’t even ride through the village when you were 13, would you?” Dad receives a withering glare from daughter: “Who’s doing this interview?” Dad zips up.
You may have the impression by now that Cath is a woman with strong opinions who is not afraid to voice them, someone who probably has the capacity to upset those shrinking violets – mainly blokes who can’t cope with bloody minded members of the opposite sex – who prefer lady folk to be whimpering and simpering. She is most definitely not in that category, defrosting nicely with a second cup of tea (milk in after the tea, obviously) and I am warming to her enormously. Anyone who is prepared to ride 50 miles out (and 50 miles back) in foul conditions because “I love it up here, even in this weather” commands my immediate respect.
Cath was pretty handy as a youngster, especially on the track, beating the other girls while having to also race against the boys in those unreconstructed pre-Lottery (and Sky) funding days. “There were no separate races, there was nothing at all. And as soon as you turned 16, you had to race with the senior women. It was hard. You are used to getting battered because you had to ride with the lads, so it didn’t make a lot of difference riding against the women.
“I enjoyed it but especially track racing. I always loved racing the track. I beat all the other under-16 girls then but I wouldn’t now. They are much, much better. But then the whole thing has moved on, hasn’t it? I was on the national junior squad at exactly the same time as Bradley. We used to go in once a month and there was a trolley with some out of date Lucozade and energy bars on it, and that was all you got. And I was the only girl: I used to have to do team pursuit training with the juniors.”
The school of hard knocks, perhaps? It may well be character building but I’ve a feeling Cath’s character didn’t need much work doing. As thousands of new cyclists take to the sport – partly in response to her man’s heroics in the Tour and Olympics – there promises to be some educating to be done and the duty lies with Cath’s and the generation above to pass on its accumulated knowledge.
The days of top secret meeting points, unwelcoming clubs and newcomers getting dropped in the middle of nowhere and left to their own devices are surely gone. But we agree it is not easy letting go when your sport of geeks and misfits goes mainstream. “We were riding up here earlier and this bloke’s wearing white running shorts, like in the 118, 118 advert, and he comes flying past, attacking us. Sure enough, ten minutes later, he’d blown up by the side of the road.
“The more the merrier, right, because I absolutely love the sport, always have done and always will. I might fall out with it for periods of time but I’ll always come back. Even today I have loved it in a warped way because it’s appropriate coming up here when it’s grim. I want these new people to get that. Come in, enjoy it, fall in love with it but if you’re not going to do that, then…
“I always have to have a crisp pair of white socks to race in. And clean mitts but I will always rub my hands on the floor first. Then you’re not going to touch it again, are you? And the same with new kit. I’m still the geek from school who enjoyed riding her bike and loved the sport and I’m quite protective. I like the traditions and the correct words. And I don’t like the phrase ‘yellow jumper’.” 2, you have been warned.
We move along, as I recount a talk I had with Bradley at the Garmin training camp in Girona back in 2009, his compression sock-clad legs on the table before me, skinny elevated calves resting at every available moment. He was aiming for top 20 at the Tour, he said – which sounded like one of those things riders say because it’s what journalists want to hear, an arrangement with which neither party is entirely happy – and we passed swiftly on to the next subject. I should have paid attention, obviously.
“Everyone was laughing at him,” Cath says before qualifying: “Well not laughing, but not taking him seriously. I have never doubted him whatsoever, even when he was having his so called bad year . I wish I could have a bad year like that, by the way, winning a pink jersey in the Giro. And I don’t think 23rd in the Tour was that bad.”
And 2012 wasn’t bad either, was it? “The result speaks for itself doesn’t it? But I am quietly smug. I have never known anybody be so blinkered and determined. He makes himself sick [in training] and falls over. He’s not normal. He doesn’t see any of the chaos around him that it causes – that’s the challenge, particularly as the kids get older. But I have done it once, I’m sure I will do it again.”
Such is the lot of a professional cyclist’s partner: picking up the pieces, organising, fitting around the other half’s commitments, fending off the constant requests for a few minutes of his time. And supporting, always supporting, and believing, like at the first Tour rest day after Brad’s decisive time trial win at Besançon.
“He was in yellow by then. He had put out the jerseys and lions on the bed and gone out for a ride. I was crying – I had to get it all out of my system: can’t make a fuss in front of him. Then we sat out the back in a lovely sunny courtyard and just talked. And he said: ‘I’m going to win this now’ and I said ‘I know’.”
Team Sky had it all under control from there on in, leading to calls of a boring Tour from some quarters. That touched a nerve. “It wasn’t boring at all,” Cath rallies. “All this panache business – they can kiss my arse, these people. Who’s got panache? These people that go on stupid pointless attacks? I don’t like panache.” Diminutive Frenchmen launching solo assaults the second the flag drops, beware: your card has been marked.
The whole family met up in Paris, son Ben getting to ride a lap of the Champs-Élysées in a world champion’s cap donated by Cavendish, Bernard Eisel pushing him over the cobbles. “It was so cute,” she says. “My son, riding a lap of the Champs-Élysées! I still can’t believe it.” Six-year-old Bella, Cath says, has that “quiet determination thing going on” when on a bike. Genetics, clearly.
The great day in Paris was a taste of some surreal times to come. In a scene reminiscent of the publicity poster for Being John Malkovich (in which hundreds of people sport masks of the American film star), Cath and the children found thousands in Paris sporting Wiggo masks.
As a bystander, I find them disturbing. For the then five-year-old Bella, the freakish cardboard facades of her father were confusing and upsetting, and understandably so. Things got crazier. The standard response from Brad during the Tour when asked if he was aware of the commotion back home was that the riders were in a bubble and blissfully ignorant.
The Olympic time trial in London gave the winner a chance to sample Wiggo-mania at close quarters. Cycling was, fleetingly, front page news; Wiggins the poster boy of the nation’s new found enthusiasm for the sport. The tabloids published cut out sideburns for the fans to show their roadside support. Thousands duly obliged.
A family holiday in Mallorca would, you’d think, be just what was needed. Cyclists have stayed at Puerto Pollensa for decades, hanging out at Tolo’s restaurant, drinking post-ride coffees. The last time I was there, Sean Kelly strolled in. On the previous occasion, most of the GB track squad. They are left alone to enjoy their meals while the proprietor wanders over for a friendly chat. It is the accepted norm. Not this time though. Everyone wants a piece of the Tour winner.
“We were determined to carry on as normal but we had to come in through the kitchen. Cyclists are usually quite standoff-ish. It wouldn’t be a novelty seeing him in there. If you want to see him, you go to the national 10, don’t you?”
Wiggins is not the first pro rider to enjoy a crafty smoke with a glass or two of wine on holiday, yet the tabloids’ telephoto lenses and grainy photos made it big news, followed by sanctimonious columnists weighing in with their ‘setting a bad example’ pious bullshit routine. (Take it from a smoker: he doesn’t even hold the fag the right way round. He’s no regular puffer.)
“We always go to Pollensa – that was maybe not the best decision,” Cath admits now. “We were pretty upset but we’re over it now.” So a ‘relaxing’ holiday cut short. At least they would have some peace and quiet back home in rural Lancashire… No. Autograph hunters, professional photographers, amateur snappers leaning from moving cars: Brad had the lot to contend with, as did Cath and the kids.
“We live down a farm track which is quite useful but all the photographers were camped at the end. It’s a bit bizarre. I think it’s the celebrity culture in this country, so even though he has not gone down that route, he’s in these magazines now, so he’s a celebrity. And public property.”
There is a line of thinking in the UK that the rich and/or famous deserve everything they get; that being well known in their field, whatever that may be, somehow justifies our intrusion into every aspect of their private lives; that taking a Facebook-destined iPhone snap with an arm draped around the shoulder of a celeb confers a little stardust on the draper. The feelings and wellbeing of those targets of our admiration – and their loved ones – are tossed aside in the thoughtless, self-centred stampede to impress our ‘friends’.
Cycling journalists may be as guilty as any but I like to think we know when to step back in private moments and when to step up when working. Consider this anecdote from Cath the next time you spy a famous rider across a crowded room: “We were walking through Euston station the other week, packed, like it is, and someone comes up going: ‘Brad! Brad! Can I have a photo?’ And Brad said he couldn’t stop there because if he did, it would cause a scrum, and this bloke was totally horrible to him, calling him this, that and the other. I can’t understand that mentality at all. I can’t think of any famous person that I would to walk up and do that to.”
Wiggo-mania will, inevitably, tail off a little in the coming months and allow a sense of normality to return before ramping up again in the approach to next year’s Tour. The hectic social season, with invites to every awards dinner and social occasion on the calendar, will need to be dealt with while balancing the needs of both family and training schedules. It is a tricky scenario which is familiar to any Tour winner. Brad will, I suspect, struggle with it.
Cath will bear the brunt and, as always, deflect as much pressure away from her husband as possible, but it won’t be easy. Expecting to holiday as normal in Mallorca without attracting attention may have been naive but the experience will have given them an unfortunate taste of life in the public eye. Now they must manage it as best they can.
Cath starts preparing for the long ride home. She still races when time allows; still gets a kick from elbows out track racing against increasingly younger and faster girls; still wipes her mitts on the boards, her skinsuit on the ground – a traditionalist adapting to a changing sport.
One interesting development, as the season drew to a close and debate surrounding the pitiful state of women’s road racing gathered momentum, was Brad’s statement of intent to help fund a professional women’s team. A Damascene conversion with a little help from his wife, I wondered?
“Those lads – Brad, Matt Illingworth and all them – they used to have a sweepstake going on: how many laps it would be before the girls had both wheels above the blue line, so Brad can keep quiet! But he’s changed his mind, comparatively recently, when he started actually watching it and saying: ‘This is good!’”
Could the generous offer from Brad detract from what is already in place? Make the lot of long term supporters of women’s road racing such as Stefan Wyman and the For Viored team (featured in 1 30) that bit tougher? “There are so few resources at that level that you don’t want to go in and divide further what is there already,” agrees Cath.
“You want to go in with a setup that exists already. What Stef is doing is brilliant. I think there is enough talent out there. But I have no experience of it whatsoever.”
It is time to let her go while dad Dave tells me about his collection of bikes. An enquiry as to how many machines currently currently clutter the Cochran household is met with an honest answer: he has lost count. He’s got it bad…
The rain has stopped. They may even have a tailwind for the return leg. There is no need to fret about Cath getting home safely. She’s tough. Like she said earlier: “I have done it once, I’m sure I will do it again.”